University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department


Considering Self Works


L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin
Associate Librarian

In recent decades, scholars from a variety of disciplines have begun to explore a widely diverse range of unique primary sources which, in the past, have either been overlooked or underused. In particular, autobiographical efforts -- including diaries, journals, ships logs, even scrapbooks -- which individuals have created over the past several hundred years, yield literary merit, psychological insight, aesthetic qualities, and historical evidence; and scholars have successfully turned to these hitherto neglected sources in increasing numbers.

For presentation in this exhibition, I have termed these sources "self works" (1) because they are such strongly reflective creations of individuals who communicate the significance of their lives and their selves. These materials include self-consciously created autobiographies or memoirs in which individuals explore life meaning or historical context, as well as private diaries and journals in which authors unintentionally bestow rich personal texture to the fabric of history. Even pocket diaries and desk calendars which primarily serve to organize passing life details reveal useful information. Scrapbooks and other artistic self works also reward the researcher with evidence of creative self-expression. Diaries, journals, personal scrapbooks, travel narratives, autobiographies, memoirs, and reminiscences convey the personal experiences of ordinary men, women, and children who did not merit even a footnote in the official chronicles of history. Broadly called "life writing," these works help document much that previously was concealed from the standard record of human experience.

Self works often have tremendous popular appeal for the general reader. Readers may enjoy the role of voyeur, but just as often have sympathetic responses to authentic voices found in self works. The serendipity and spontaneity of contemporary life records, inclusion of historically marginal players, confession of personal indiscretions, naïveté of youthful impressions, tedium of the ordinary, suspense of an unfolding drama, realistic suffering in face of life's hardships, passion of romance, and the fervor of prayer -- all are engaging characteristics of life writing. These works offer subjective but universally familiar accounts of personal experience, of what it was like for an individual to live in a particular time and place. Readers are often led to consider their own lives in comparison with the personal experiences others have described. The self examined is the basis of individual growth, and what is authentically known about others is the basis of human development and understanding.

A selection of sixty-seven works from fifty-nine individuals is presented in this exhibition. Examples range from eighteenth and nineteenth century diaries and journals such as the diary of the American Revolutionary sailor Charles Herbert, which he kept during his imprisonment by the British between 1777-1780, and the 1867 travel narrative of Delaware's own Pepys, Walter Courtenay Pepys, who shared lineage with Samuel from John Pepis of Cottenham, to the contemporary diaries and autobiographical writings of American author Mark Harris. After examining these sources, as well as the considerable scholarship which has been devoted to these genres in recent years, (2) I am approaching the materials from five perspectives: time, place, gender, evidence of intention for the work's creation, and genre. I am aware that these perspectives inevitably overlap and are certainly not all-inclusive; however, I have found it interesting to consider "self works" from these distinct vantage points.

Time is clearly the primary factor to interest the scholar: when and in what historical context was the work created? Of the journals and scrapbooks presented here, many offer contemporary documentation of events and thoughts from specific historical periods. The war diaries of soldiers and relief workers like James Smith during the American Civil War and Stanley Osborn during the First World War are obvious sources for firsthand accounts of what those events meant to actual participants. But many other works shown in this exhibit also bear historical witness to what life was like during particular periods. Philadelphia resident Henry Marston's daily journal for 1875 describes city-wide preparations and opening ceremonies for America's Centennial Exhibition, and Milton Fisher's 1834 journey south, from the Northeast to Virginia, presents social commentary on the growing national issue of slavery.

In contrast to those works which offer representative historical experiences, some sources uniquely document experiences not commonly associated with the time in which they were created. The scrapbooks compiled by Teresa Vielé related to her divorce and custody battle are clearly removed from the ordinary subject of most women's scrapbooks created during any time. They serve as an especially unique product of New York high society in 1870-1871.

Another important component of time as a consideration is the age of the individual who created the self work. How old was the person who is writing about his or her life? Is the creator speaking with mature perspective developed from a broad range of life experiences? Does the creator have self-confidence, the benefit of time and the gift of age? Or has the individual lost the enthusiastic, idealistic viewpoint of youth? In his fundamental work on English diaries, Arthur Ponsonby suggests self-indulgent introspection is more suited as a mechanism of journal keeping for youth. "The middle-aged man generally thinks it futile to continue this method, partly because he tends to become rather less interested in himself and partly because he is reluctant to show that his attempts at self-correction have been in vain." (3)

The period of time between the occurrence of events and the actual creation of a self work also needs to be considered for influence on the accuracy of the work. Contemporary diaries are often vivid with spontaneous details which ring of truthfulness. However subjective, the more immediate the retelling of an event, the greater the likelihood of its accuracy. Recollections and retrospective accounts risk the selectiveness and reliability of memory. One of the challenges for any reader of these types of writings is to identify the creator revealed or hidden in the story that self has presented.

A retrospective narrative based on revision of a contemporary daily journal serves as an interesting hybrid, and several such journals are presented in this exhibition. Some of the creators of these works knew at an early stage that they intended to re-write their diaries in the future; others took advantage of old age or unemployment to revisit significant experiences or adventures of their lives. Charles Gray, a sailor from Boston who spent three years in China between 1863-1866, kept a diary when he was overseas, which he used as the basis of a longer narrative he hoped to publish. Readers may have confidence in the facts of Gray's journey, and his subjective "account of the manners and customs of the Chinese" raises suspicions no more serious than curiosity about Gray's ownYankee perspective. The breath-taking "life and adventures" of Charles Boss, however, cause the reader to raise amused but skeptical eyebrows. As an Indian fighter in the American West between 1869-1877, Boss also reportedly kept contemporary "papers" about his experiences which he used to write, in the 1880s, recollections of his earlier wild times. There is enough boring detail of routine soldierly duties to support the reality of his experiences, but the overall dramatic scale of heroes and villains, escapes and dangerous encounters, certainly suggests memory embellished, and very likely was influenced by the popularity of Wild West shows.

Place is another defining factor of any self work. The comfort of home, in particular, gives moment to the daily routine and the ordinary. Massachusetts resident Dudley Swift's diary of farm chores, kept between 1784-1844, represents the record of one man watching the seasons change around him. His life is centered in his work. Mary White, also from Massachusetts, kept domestic journals from 1805-1855 which repeatedly recorded the familiars of her world: hard work, spiritual meditations, and the social relations of family and neighbors. Unless disturbed by significant situations like war or romance, habitual diarists quietly chronicle the rich details of ordinary life.

Travel, on the other hand, inspires consciousness of what is new and different. For many, the actual voyage from one place to another makes the strongest impression of adventure. Selina Washburn, who traveled with her father from Boston to England in 1854, was too young to comment with any sophistication on the sightseeing she enjoyed in England. But the five weeks' duration of crossing the Atlantic gave her enough time to formulate opinions about seasickness, shipboard entertainments, and fellow passengers. Travel accounts vary from straightforward itineraries to thoughtful descriptions which reveal the mind of the observer. J. C. Welsh traveled with his father in 1817 from Boston to Demerara, British Guyana, where they hoped to settle legal claims on an estate. But the case dragged on for two years, and Welsh's description of his predicament increasingly contrasts his miseries and misfortunes to Yankee customs and comforts with which he is familiar. American Harriet Crothers, on a honeymoon tour of Europe with her husband in 1846, appreciates in detail the art and architecture which they view, but reveals her democratic Protestantism in confronting the Catholic culture of shrines and reliquaries. These travelers all made observations in contrast to the comfortable familiarities of home, but they have something else in common. As no other personal diaries survive from these individuals, it is very likely that they were not habitual diarists, but rather "diarists of situation," (4) those inspired by change from the ordinary events of their lives.

Gender is another self-evident characteristic of any autobiographical effort. In 1923 Ponsonby remarked on the unavailability of women's diaries in his survey of English diaries from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. (5) By the 1970s, a host of social historians and feminist literary scholars had discovered new sources in the life writings of unknown, ordinary women. Gender is used to compare life experiences, but also to explore how those life stories are told. In 1974, Mary Jane Moffat was at the forefront of accepting women's diaries (6) as a revelationary genre: "The form has been an important outlet for women partly because it is an analogue to their lives: emotional, fragmentary, interrupted, modest, not to be taken seriously, private, restricted, daily, trivial, formless, concerned with self, as endless as their tasks." (7)

In contrast to the business feats and life adventures of several men shown in this exhibition are the home-oriented reflections of a few women. Midshipman Frederick Hodge personalized his official ships' logs with illustrations and maps of his world travels between 1881-1885, and engineer James Maxwell's contemporary diaries and retrospective writings document his significant accomplishments building railroads in the American West and in Peru from 1868-1900. The nearly daily "spells" and "hysterical attacks" of Anna Potts, a housewife from Paoli, Pennsylvania, certainly dominated the entries of her private diary, but did not keep Potts from the variety of domestic duties which occupied a woman of her station in 1860. In addition to routine chores such as Monday washing and baking days, Potts helped with seasonal work on her husband's farm, such as slaughtering and the harvest. Relatives in nearby Philadelphia were a great source of comfort and support for Potts, and the rest of her social life revolved around church attendance. Potts's life story is intimately set near home and family; the inclusion of such evidence in social history offers a more balanced record of how life was lived.

Discovering a creator's intention for keeping a self work can yield valuable insight into the fundamental nature of that individual. It is surprising, really, how often creators justify, explain, apologize for, rationalize, belittle, or ask for indulgence for their efforts to write about themselves. Some clearly state that they are beginning a diary for moral or intellectual self-improvement. Others create for the immediate amusement it will bring them to make observations now, and for the future entertainment it will bring their descendants. Many travelers know they will want to remember their trip and need to create memory aids. Well-organized individuals often extend that characteristic to personal record keeping. Many engage their journals in a confidential conversation of discovery, trying to decipher life plans or personal spiritual mysteries. And many individuals, confronting a blank book, simply feel the urge to create. Their effort may be only textual or, as a scrapbook, their creation may become a collage of ephemera which illustrates their lives. Several diaries and journals featured in the exhibition include such expressions, but Lucien Boynton's 1835 preface and introduction stands par excellence as the most comprehensive, self-aware statement of intention for keeping his self work. Boynton addressed his journal as his "dear friend" and as his "child." After outlining its multi-faceted duties he prayed for the journal, "...let it be said of thee at the end of thy course, that thy existence has not been in vain, but that thou hast done some good."

A final perspective for considering each self work is its genre, or what form the creation takes. The diary with its regular, periodic entries plods along in unfolding life stories. The journal, similar to the diary, often involves greater intellectual exercise on the part of its creator. Epistolary diaries reflect a need for an audience, or suggest a discomfort with the self-centeredness of creating a personal record. Memoirs are often recollections which bury the self in the context of greater historical events or in the company of better known celebrities, while autobiographies focus on the self creating its own history. Autobiographical fiction suggests a continuing need to explore and re-examine the self, to experiment with different endings for life events, or to impose the self on other realities. Essays insist on personal rationalization of world events and intellectual observations. And the creative self uses scrapbooks, collecting bits and ephemeral pieces which visually enhance written expression.

The diaries, scrapbooks, and other autobiographical efforts presented in this exhibition may be examined by combining these various factors of time, place, gender, intention, and genre. The nineteenth-century American schoolboy who used his daily diary to improve his spelling, the young nineteenth-century British bachelor who toured the European continent for cultural appreciation, the twentieth-century Irish artist who creatively worked out his thoughts and ideas in scrapbooks, the British teenaged girl who sensitively portrayed family life and the grace of nature while enduring a fatal illness, the 1870s society woman who collected press clippings and correspondence related to her sensational divorce, the American re-patriated writer whose later diaries reflected her desperate spiritual searches, the African-American woman who struggled to publish a newspaper and to effect change in civil rights through political activism in the 1920s -- all of these individuals created self works and left personal records of interest for research in a variety of disciplines. Some of these characters are of literary or historical import, others are nearly anonymous figures from the past. But each of them passes on the message that they, too, were real people with common human experiences. For some reason they created works reflecting their lives; for many reasons these self works remain of interest.


1. The designation "self works" is inspired by the Irish poet Brian Coffey's "self books" which form part of the Brian Coffey papers housed in the University of Delaware Library. These vibrant journal/ workbooks brilliantly represent Coffey's creative self. Back to text.

2. Arthur Ponsonby's English Diaries: A Review of English Diaries from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century with an Introduction on Diary Writing (London 1923) and More English Diaries: Further Reviews of Diaries from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century with an Introduction on Diary Reading (London 1927) are the seminal diary surveys of the twentieth century. Steven Kagle's American Diary Literature, 1620-1799 (Boston 1979), Early Nineteenth-century American Diary Literature (Boston 1986), and Late Nineteeth-century American Diary Literature (Boston 1988) are significant overviews of American diaries. Thomas Mallon explores different forms of the diary in A Book of One's Own (New York 1984), and Marlene Kadar collected Essays on Life Writing: from Genre to Critical Practice (Toronto 1992). Back to text.

3. Ponsonby, More English Diaries, 6-7. Back to text.

4. In American Diary Literature, Kagle contrasts diaries of situation (those created in response to a limited event) with life diaries (those maintained over periods of time which grow and change in their purpose with the creator). Back to text.

5. Ponsonby, English Diaries, 29. Back to text.

6. Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter edited Revelations: Diaries of Women (New York 1974) in which they considered how women used diaries for self-exploration; Penelope Franklin surveyed more women's diaries in Private Pages: Diaries of American Women, 1830s - 1970s (New York 1986); and Harriet Blodgett further considered why diary keeping was so extensively practiced by women in Centuries of Female Days: Englishwomen's Private Diaries (New Brunswick, N.J. 1988). Back to text.

7. Moffat, Revelations, 5. Back to text.

Considering self works Creating self works Living & learning Domestic diaries
Business & adventure War diaries Keepsakes Word & deed
Inner journeys Travel diaries Professional writers Avocational efforts

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